In its infancy, Orange Is the New Black was the story of Piper Chapman, a narcissistic white woman thrown into a prison complex that seemingly erased privilege. It didn’t take long for the series to reveal itself as less about the chronicles of Piper—the show’s obnoxious nucleus—and more as a tragic saga about the interplay of women in the margins. Each season plays out like a comical tragedy, with new great miserable figures to love. Stakes are substantially realer in Season 4, because so much of it deals with themes of cultural identity and bloodlines through the tension of racism, the perfect ammo to explore the lengths to which powerless people will go.

Besides persistent corruption, this season’s most prominent, compelling plot point involves a battle between the whites, blacks and Latinas, which heightens the previously set-up race wars and brings the weapon of privilege into play. The show is far more politicized (compared to Season 3’s mommy issues focus), still as funny and complicated as ever. Beyond the first few couple episodes, the tension and purpose picks up, under the backdrop of Black Lives Matter, cultural battles, gender discrimination and post-racialisms, all ways to inject urgency and attack white, male supremacy.

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OITNB spent three seasons setting up issues of systemic corruption and bureaucracy at Litchfield, problems now exacerbated by overcrowding. “We ain’t people no more. We bulk items,” says Aleida, doing the Orange thing of abbreviating the heft of a situation in one depressingly true quote. As before, the 100 new inmates to Litchfield fall in line with their respective ethnicities, which forms the base of a clash that unspools through 13 episodes. The first opens with an abrupt end to the freedom chapter that capped Season 3, when the prisoners escaped and had the briefest of baptisms in the nearby lake.

The corporatization of Litchfield is immediately visible. Guards from Max are deployed like GI Joes to shut down the fun and reinstate order and reality. Joe Caputo is in charge as Warden, and newly empowered, a professional fulfillment meant to both irk and impress us. He’s the biggest failure of authority, a well-meaning screw-up, and the prison’s largest empathizer in one, now with better resources. Really, he’s just a dirtbag with a conscience, and his influence always has dire limits.

The inmate influx gives Latinas the demographic advantage, which Blanca deigns to exploit, smartly noting how the takeover mimics the changing makeup of America. The racial feud is exactly what Piper—whose delusions of grandeur have reached Gambino levels—needs to feel important. She’s fully externalized the outsider feeling she experienced when she first arrived, and this takes the form of bullying freshman inmates. Every season it seems we try to wish Piper away, so we no longer have to pity her, and this one is no different. There’s still too much of her. When Red remarks that Piper’s infinity branding on her arm “looks like an angry 8,” it stresses how silly Piper looks playing tough. Her sole purpose is to antagonize prisoners through an imagined sense of authority, which isn’t that different from Caputo’s. “They’re scared of me. That’s my protective coating,” Piper tells Red in Episode 2.

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Piper, of course, would be the one to stumble into a partnership with racist Neo-Nazis, an association that disturbs her less than it should. The panty export business she started in Season 3 is booming, but with added competition from Ruiz’s copycat operation. Piper’s benefit is that unlike the others, in here, she can use her skin to her advantage, convening with Leanne and company to convince guards to penalize the Latinas. The war elevates with drastic repercussions for Ruiz because of Piper, whose privilege ultimately gets revoked. Eventually, we see how ill-equipped she is to battle those who’ve been about that life much longer than she has, which is when the story gets richer and darker. Red makes a chilling proclamation, as she’s transforming the Nazi symbol branded onto Piper by the Latinas, into a window: “When God gives you a swastika, he opens a window. And then you remember, there is no God.”

In the middle of the big war are all these smaller battles regarding race and religion, like the prison’s Jewish convert Cindy and her new Muslim bunk mate Alison’s arguments over religious semantics. Most telling are the convos around cultural distinctions. Daya, who’s Puerto Rican, carps about “plantain-eating Dominican bitches.” In the same episode, Leanne and Angie debate the difference between Dominicans and Mexicans using stereotypes—“If you’re gonna be racist, you gotta be accurate or you just look dumb,” Leanne tells her, in a discussion that’s well-played for how accurately offensive it is while showing how much their judgments—Leanne’s and Daya’s—sound the same.

The lineage of intra-racial tension turns up again in Ruiz’s backstory when her dad, the leader of the Dominican Pride drug cartel, shows contempt for the Colombian and Mexican competition. OITNB is normally at its best when it digs into the human psychology behind its characters through these backstories, but the flashbacks have increasingly felt more ritual than revealing.

Piper’s demented friendship with Alex remains the least appealing part of the story, though at least comic relief is borne from Alex’s sadistic Laverne-and-Shirley shenanigans with Lolly, the prisoner with the grating cartoon voice whose backstory (expectedly) reveals a mental illness. There’s a wonderful Little Shop of Horrors moment that requires Alex and crew to chop up a body, which represents remnants of her criminal past and predictably returns to haunt her.

As part of the power theme, Taystee’s rush of influence comes with joining the system, after she moves from janitorial duties to Caputo’s assistant. “You got power now, right?” Cindy says. After Taystee decides to wield it in a way that shows how foreign the idea is to her, Litchfield’s keenest observer Suzanne says, “She’s gone mad with slight empowerment.” An increasingly callous Ruiz echoes the sentiment in a latter episode: “We got power now. We can’t get petty and shit.”

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If it’s not a racially-motivated grab for power or revenge driving the women, it’s a search for solidarity. The latter half of the season, before the mood drastically shifts, makes room for the brilliance of Uzo Aduba. The core of the nutty family even when she’s in the background, Suzanne is the one who foolishly calls Litchfield “home.” There’s a fling in the beginning that’s abruptly squashed because her love interest Kukudio is, in Suzanne’s eyes, “batshit crazy.” Suzanne only gets to feel temporary love and pleasure, and it makes sense when her crime is finally unveiled. It’s about the ultimate loss of innocence and explains much of her pent-up violence, which reemerges.

The specific focus on interracial lesbian relationships is no coincidence and falls in line with this season’s framework. Poussey, whose arc has revolved around a desire for real intimacy, proves to be the perfect companion to the naïveté of the sexually fluid Brook, who initially reduces Poussey to a stereotype and likes to treat people like projects. Their bond turns out to be a loving one, somewhat worth putting up with Soso’s ignorance. The prison’s hugest idealist Morello, having wobbled right into her fairytale last season in Vinny, finds out there may be drawbacks to knowing nothing about the man you married. There’s an especially vivid visitation scene between them that proves either they’re made for each other or too crazy for each other.

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Caputo has also found love, and his pitiful kindness seems more enviable next to the heartlessness of his new girlfriend Linda, a Purchasing rep who pitches merciless ideas like hiring veterans as C.O.s to save money and instilling a work program that’s essentially a chain gang. The height of their sadistic relationship—we’re made to want some kind of romantic relief for him—is a trip to Correcticon, a genius made-up conference where the reality of prison life converges into sales pitches. One woman tries to sell the idea of menstrual cups. The realization is that these inmates are handled, and mishandled, like faulty goods.

Outside of Piper and her white power collective, the other privilege on display is fame. The most impactful new inmate Judy King—somewhere between a sage Martha Stewart-esque entrepreneur and a honeyed southern bigot (Paula Deen) who blames her own bigotry on old-school habits—gets special treatment. Yoga Jones reluctantly welcomes the pampering when forced to room with her. And Judy reluctantly unites with the black inmates, a fitting white ally.

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The most rewarding something-of-a-relationship this season, for me, is with Daya and Aleida. At first, they argue over Daya’s and Officer Bennett’s baby—recall that in Season 3 Daya pushed for Pornstache’s mom to adopt so the baby could live a good life—but prison has brought them miles closer in terms of understanding. Aleida gets an early release and it’s her and our first extensive look at the adjustment of life outside the walls. The character who could’ve used less of disappointing, overwrought storyline is Sophia. The majority we see of her is in the SHU as a victim of solitude, desperate for release. That her wife has no idea about her condition or whereabouts, despite repeated appeals to Caputo, brings attention to the prison’s fundamental dismissiveness, and that’s where Sophia serves her purpose. Nicky, too, feels like an afterthought, with the same rehab story that makes her the consummate example of failed reform.

A surprising coalition develops among the whites, blacks and Latinas against the male establishment, namely their newest torturer Captain Piscatella, and it’s the ultimate solidarity move. Because what the inmates do to each other is never as bad as what’s done to them.

Season 3's major tragic event was Pennsatucky’s rape. Season 4 deals with the aftermath of her living in a shithole with the guard who violated her. She’s worried for Ramos, who’s taken Pennsatucky’s place in the van assignment, and actively avoids Coates, until a difficult convo between the two about the definition of rape. He thinks because he told Pennsatucky he loved her, “that makes it different.” The writers have masterfully mapped out her evolution, and at the core of it is her blind recognition of forgiveness out of necessity. Still, there’s a sense of hopelessness. Ramos (we find out she worked with a group of con men using her looks to swindle dudes) becomes the victim/experiment for yet another power-tripping guard, Humphrey. Flaca later calls it “some Hannibal Lecter shit.”

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Here’s where the powerlessness reaches its max. At the midpoint, I found myself wondering where all this was going. Then came the protest in the cafeteria, which ends with the show’s saddest, most crippling death, a blatant statement about black lives and police brutality, recontextualized in prison, made all the more awful by how real it feels, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you will cry. I’d say it was too much, if it weren’t so entirely plausible. While the plot is methodically literal, the character’s sendoff is fittingly poetic.

What makes the season doubly frustrating and meta is the realization that all this was written by a crew of predominantly white writers, albeit women. The crushing reality is that even a diverse show with a strong stance on the debilitating imbalance of power can be part of the problem.

OITNB excels again at showing the realistic cycle of forward movement and backpedaling with its characters and, widely, the systems that fail them. When Lolly has dreams of traveling back in time, it’s a reminder of Suzanne’s erotic wormhole fiction from a year ago. But Litchfield is a place where time stands still, and the degrees of transformation for these people are dismally infinitesimal. Worse is the thought that some of them won’t ever get a chance to change.


Images via Netflix